By a vote of 41-8, the New York City Council passed legislation on Aug. 14 stipulating that future commissioners of the Department of Buildings (DOB) need not hold a professional license in architecture or engineering. Where the City Charter previously required such licensure in the department's top post, the new amendment, known as Introduction 755-A, states that either the commissioner or the first deputy commissioner must hold a license.
The following day, as expected, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intention to appoint Robert LiMandri as buildings commissioner. Previously a deputy commissioner, LiMandri has served as acting commissioner since April, when he replaced architect Patricia Lancaster, the first woman to hold the position. Lancaster resigned after multiple fatal construction crane collapses in early 2008 killed 13 people and investigations revealed a department in disarray. LiMandri, who has been with the DOB since 2002, holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering but is not professionally licensed.
The city, in its statement about Intro 755-A, maintained the legislation "will give Mayors needed flexibility in choosing the person that will run the Department of Buildings while also ensuring that an individual with the technical expertise of a licensed architect or engineer is in the department's highest leadership levels."
Rick Bell, executive director of AIA New York, disagrees. "We have such admiration for this administration," he says, "but they are making a big mistake with this decision." At press time, the chapter was considering litigation. (Engineers are upset with the legislation as well. The New York Times reported on Aug. 15 that the New York State Society of Professional Engineers said it was thinking about suing the city.)
"It's very important that the commissioner is a professional architect or engineer," says Bell. Citing the growing public concern over construction accidents, he adds, "This is really a public safety issue. At the scene of a disaster, the mayor turns to the commissioner for advice. Whoever is in that position should not have to be calling a deputy." The process of acquiring and maintaining a professional license?which includes understanding building codes, zoning regulations, and technical considerations?uniquely prepared candidates to head the DOB, says Bell, who could not say whether other cities require government officials in similar positions to be professionally licensed.
San Francisco architect John Schlesinger, who is the chair of advocacy for the local AIA chapter, says that the city "abides by California state law for chiefs of building departments." In San Francisco, he explains, "there is an emphasis to hire a registered engineer," but no requirement to hire an architect or engineer. Instead, he says, "There are certain criteria [nonlicensed candidates] have to meet, but if you are a licensed architect or engineer, you do not need further education to meet the state's requirements."
New York architect James McCullar feels the same way as Bell. "We must be absolutely sure that all who make decisions that affect public safety be licensed professionals. Approval of plans and issues of variances to the building laws cannot be left to administrators without professional training and licensure," says the founder and principal of Manhattan firm James McCullar & Associates.
"Our issue is not with LiMandri," Bell continues. "We are not targeting him. We are looking at the charter, since it now opens the door for future administrations to fill the commissioner's office with a political appointee."